A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 19, 2010
It was a betrothal rather than an engagement, even though our pew- Bibles say they were "engaged." The passage we just read from Matthew begins with the disclosure that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal was not a promise to marry, but was actually the first stage of marriage in that Semitic culture. In a ceremony before witnesses, a woman and man formally entered into betrothal. The woman stayed with her parents during the betrothal, and the betrothed couple did not live together or relate to each other intimately until after the marriage ceremony, when they entered the marriage canopy and the marriage blessings were recited. Still, once a couple was betrothed, they were referred to as husband and wife. A betrothal could be canceled only by an official bill of divorce.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, and she was pregnant. Now, readers of the story have read about the angel Gabriel's announcement and know the wherefore and the why of her pregnancy, but embedded within the story itself, Joseph does not. His assumption is that Mary is pregnant because of some infidelity, which, under a formal betrothal, is considered adultery. And so, Joseph is faced with a decision... a very difficult decision.
I have some friends, a clergy couple, who have a middle-school-aged daughter named Deborah. Back when Deborah was a five-year-old she was doing some writing in her journal one day, but got stuck on a word, so she came to her mother and asked, "How do you spell ‘sure'?" Her mom said, "Like, ‘I'm sure about something?'" Exasperated, Deborah replied, "No, like, ‘I'm not sure about something.'"
Sure...not sure. My suspicion is that is where Joseph was in the story. He was sure he was not the father of the child Mary was carrying. He was sure the pregnancy constituted a scandal. He was sure of what the law required in such a matter. He was not sure how to resolve the dilemma in which he found himself... in which they found themselves. Scholars actually have some different opinions about how to understand Joseph in his moment of decision. What is not debated is Matthew's description of Joseph as a "righteous man." That would seem to suggest that he was a person devoted to the Torah, a faithful Jew. In this matter the law was clear; adultery was grounds for divorce, and so a bill of divorce should be issued. Matthew goes on to say that Joseph was "unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace," and so "planned to dismiss her quietly." This would seem to suggest that Joseph was the model of the law-observant Jew who blended submission to the law with compassion for one in need. Here righteousness was not separated from mercy.
It is worth mentioning, however, that not everyone reads Joseph in such a positive way. Another reading takes note of Joseph's desire to keep Mary's shame out of the public sphere, his desire to dismiss her "quietly," and compares that discretion with the secrecy of Herod in the following chapter of Matthew, when he summons the magi to him "in private." This line of argument says that while "the contrasts between the righteous Joseph and Herod are striking ... the two men share a perception that Mary [and the child she bears] constitute a threat, and both act in secret to address that threat." In such an interpretation, Joseph is not a bad person. He is, after all, "a righteous man," according to Matthew, but his righteousness does not "exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees (cf. Matthew 5:20)."
Sure...not sure. What looms here is the weight of scandal and very few seemingly good options. Even when the angel sought to straighten him out, the announcement must have been a difficult word for Joseph to comprehend. I think of the plaintive plea to the angel that the poet W.H. Auden once put on Joseph's lips:
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is love.
But there is no proof... only the word of the angel. The angel says that he should not be afraid to claim Mary as his wife, for her child is of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, the angel says, is to name the child Jesus.
And he does. Whatever his thoughts might have been earlier, Joseph goes on the word of the angel now. He takes Mary as his wife, despite the scandal. She delivers the child. And Joseph gives him his name. And with that naming, Joseph assumes paternity; he confers upon Jesus a tie into the lineage of David and the status of a descendent of Abraham. In short, he adopts Jesus as his own and bestows on this child a family. He makes room for this child he didn't want and didn't expect, obedient to the angel's call.
So what are we to make of Joseph? Or maybe we should ask it this way: what does Matthew's story of Joseph want to make of us? New Testament scholar Gene Boring has a suggestion. He says,
Joseph stands, at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, as a model of what Matthew hopes for all disciples - indeed, for each reader of the Gospel. Joseph is already facing the "you-have-heard-that-it-was-said-but-I-say-to-you" tension that will be displayed in the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-48) - the tension between the prevailing understanding of God's commandments and the new thing that God is doing in Jesus.
Barbara Brown Taylor has a slightly different take on the connection between Joseph and you and me. She makes the connection through a thought about paintings we have all seen of the Holy Family at Bethlehem. She says:
Study religious art and [this] is what you will see: a grizzled old man who has lost most of his hair, dozing off to the side somewhere with his chin on his walking stick while the whole world admires young Mary and her child. In some paintings, he sits near her with his shoe off and his foot bare, snipping his long woolen stocking into a warm wrap for the child. In others, he cups a slender candle in his hand, protecting its fragile fire from the wind while his wife and child glow with celestial light. His earthbound flame is feeble against their heavenly radiance, and he seems always to be lingering just beyond the edge of the golden sphere that envelops them - the kindly old man in the dark, an extra in the drama starring Mary and her child. . . .
Do I need to say more? That quiet, old, peripheral man - the one with the missing sock and the candle wax on his sleeve - he is the one to watch. He is the one in the story who is most like us, presented day by day by day with circumstances beyond our control, with lives we would never have chosen for ourselves, tempted to divorce ourselves from it all when an angel whispers in our ears: "Do not fear. God is here. It may not be the life you had planned, but God may be born here too, if you will permit it."
That "if" is the real shocker - that God's "yes" depends on our own, that God's birth requires human partners - a Mary, a Joseph, a you, and a me - willing to believe the impossible, willing to claim the scandal, to adopt it and give it our names, accepting the whole sticky mess and rocking it in our arms. Our lives, our losses, our Lord. And not just each of us alone, but the whole church of God, surveying a world that seems to have run amuck and proclaiming over and over and over again to anyone who will hear that God is still with us, that God is still being born in the mess and through it, within and among those who will still believe what angels will tell them in their dreams.
The angel appeared to Mary. The angel appeared to Joseph. And their lives were never the same again. They had made their commitments to one another. They had begun to build some plans for their lives... plans in keeping with custom and tradition, full of customary and traditional expectations. But then, as John Lennon once said so accurately, "Life is what happens while we are busy making other plans." Life intervened in their plans in the whispers of an angel. And so ultimately, says Rick Spalding,
... what began as a project of planning the ordinariness of a pair of lives tied together in the way of [such] things turns out to be a project of making room for the life of God in the midst of the structures, the plans and patterns. Mary and Joseph are the great-grandparents of the dislocation of our well-drawn maps. They are the patron saints of our scrambling to accommodate the will of God as a demanding newborn in the straw of our ordinary days. Who knows if we will rise to this interruption with the grace of quiet resolve, with the wit of fertile imagination - or whether we will rail against it with every ounce of ordinariness we have?
Considering Joseph's willingness to "rise to the interruption," Martin Copenhaver says,
No wonder Matthew seems to have a particular fondness for Joseph. Here is a righteous man who surveys a mess he has had absolutely nothing to do with creating and decides to believe that God is present in it. With every reason to disown it all, to walk away from it in search of a neater, more controlled life with an easier, more conventional wife, Joseph does not do that. He claims the scandal, he owns the mess- he legitimizes it-and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born.
Owning the mess. Making room for such a life in our lives... Joseph did it. For all of the tough time people have had over the years trying to figure out how Joseph fits into this sacred story, here is how: he is our model and guide. He is our best link with this sacred story. And yet, at the same time, his story leaves us with some unanswered questions about our own lives: Are we up to such a realignment of our plans? Are we ready to own the mess, to make room for One to be born to us? In us? Are we ready?
"How do you spell, ‘sure'"? Deborah asked her mom.
"Like ‘I'm sure about something?'" she answered.
"No," she said.... No.
 Cf. David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Macon, Georgia, Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2001, 21, and Warren Carter: Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 2000, 66-67.
 Garland, 22.
 Carter, 68.
 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1995, 41.
 Gaventa, in comments to the January 1995 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Holmes, New York.
 W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, 1945.
 Cf. Carter, 72.
 M. Eugene Boring, "The Gospel According to Matthew," The New Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995, 137.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, Cambridge, Cowley Publications, 1995, 155, 157.
 Martin B. Copenhaver, "Jesus' Other Parent," Journal for Preachers, 31 no. 1 Advent 2007, 34-36